In the end, it was almost anti-climactic how easy this was for the champions. There was no need for Aguero to keep his cool in Fergie time, Toure didn’t have to go into Godzilla-in-a-mini-golf-course mode and rampage towards Adrian’s goal, nor did Newcastle have to pull off an upset that would have surprised no one in Anfield more than the Newcastle players themselves. And in a season when their “spine” of Kompany-Toure-Silva-Aguero played a paltry 216 minutes together before Sunday’s finale, an immense amount of credit must go to arguably the heart and soul of Manchester City: Pablo Zabaleta.
City fans everywhere would have been dreading the day Zabaleta picked up even the slightest knock or injury because for all it’s perceived squad depth, City essentially have only one player playing right-back. With Micah Richards perpetually injured and Dedryck Boyata nowhere near Premier League quality, City’s attacking threat down the right relied heavily on a fit Zabaleta.
Given how much City rely on him, it is no surprise to see him top the Minutes Played chart among his teammates. With 35 appearances, including one off the bench, Zaba has played 3079 minutes, which is 152 minutes more than the second best Yaya Toure. That being said, Pellegrini has the option of putting Garcia or Fernandinho on instead of Toure, but Zabaleta has no such freedom; meaning he has to carry on even if he is carrying a slight knock.
Zabaleta stacks up pretty well against arguably the only reason he’s not in the Team of the Year, Seamus Coleman. Although he’s attempted fewer ground 50-50s, this is simply because Coleman has played more minutes than him. Indeed, Zabaleta slightly edges Coleman in the Mins/50-50 column (11.28 to 11.33) with an almost identical Win% (57 & 58).
Additionally, he dwarfs Coleman’s aerial 50-50 columns and has also attempted a lot more tackles (120) than Coleman (71) with a rate of 26 minutes/tackle. Indeed, he has attempted more tackles than anyone else in the team (the closest being Fernandinho with 97, and the Clichy-Kolarov duo attempted 108), while Stoke’s Eric Pieters is the only full-back in the league with more tackles per minute than Zabaleta (24.18 to 25.65).
In the absence of Jesus Navas, Pellegrini depends on the full-backs for the width that is integral to City’s game. It’s no surprise that Zabaleta (6) has the second highest number of assists in the league among defenders, barring only his teammate on the left Kolarov (7).
Zabaleta also edges Coleman in the Total and Accurate Open Play Passes department, a statistic even more significant than it looks simply because he attempts more forward passes (i.e. towards more opposition players). Indeed, Zaba makes more passes in the attacking zone than Coleman (1116 to 874) with comparable defensive zone passing (546 to 565). Coleman distributes both backwards and forwards almost equally, which skews the Completion % statistic (85.42% to Zaba’s 82.69%).
Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna would be a perfect short-term solution to the problem. At 31, he has a good couple of years left in him, and this would allow City to either develop one of their own in that time or scout for better long term options. An ideal signing would be Calum Chambers; he’s young, home-grown and would ideally take over from Zabaleta in a few years. With Marcos Lopes also possibly graduating to the first-team, now would be an ideal time to bring in fresh blood and look the future.
Although Seamus Coleman was undoubtedly the RB of the Year, Zabaleta’s impact on City’s season should not be understated. In discussions of City’s lack of squad depth, we only ever hear about the lack of quality in the centre of defence and midfield. While there is also a perceived weakness on the left side of defence, Zabaleta’s role is always taken for granted on the other wing. With City now regularly competing for all four trophies (successfully or otherwise), it is crucial to sign an able sidekick to the unsung hero on the right.